Eric Karjaluoto

How Upworthy Killed Facebook

I have an unhealthy relationship with Facebook. This isn’t Facebook’s, or social media’s, fault; it’s mine. Whenever I’m unsure of what to do next, or putting off tasks I probably shouldn’t, I find myself visiting the site, to browse, read, and explore.

In recent months, this has changed. I now hesitate before clicking on content in the News Feed because, in most instances, what’s posted is shit. Actually, not shit—worse than that. Most shared content is representative of a new, hyper-resilient kind of of click bait that seems to be growing uncontrollably.

Take today, for example: my News Feed contains links to real articles like, “Capitalism Eating Its Children,” and “Cutting Back On Carbon,” which act as rare islands of credible content. However, the vast bulk of my feed consists of headlines like, “Silhouette Man Wonders WTF is Wrong With Americans,” “22 Adorable Photos of Wild Foxes Turned Into Pets. And When You Read Their Stories … AWESOME!” not to mention, “What Element Are You?” and “15 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself.”

From this latter batch, I have content “creators” like Tickld, ReShareWorthy, PlayBuzz, and Collective-Evolution to thank. Only a couple of years ago, these groups hardly existed; but, following the example that Upworthy (the ass-rot of the internet) set, the click bait infestation is now upon us in full force. Seemingly daily, another junk-site pops up, with the sole intention of tricking us into clicking.

Maybe this is just a temporary blip, and this brand of pseudo-content will quickly fade from memory. My concern, is that this material might perhaps be more like reality TV: something we’ve all started to accept as normal. If this is the case, our collective notion of what constitutes acceptable news, media, and editorial content, has become completely perverted.

Although some might dismiss this as, “always having been this way,” I worry that what we’re really seeing is endemic of a kind of cultural de-evolution. What we’re willing to accept as newsworthy is not just dressed-up gossip, like it often was before, but rather a weird kind of bait-and-switch we’re seemingly powerless against. If we’re to be judged by what we click, a film like Idiocracy looks less comical, and more like a probable future scenario. (It’s got electrolytes!)

Alas, I’ve become tangential. Allow me to bring this back to the News Feed.

In spite of my lack of focus, I appreciate Facebook. It’s an incredibly useful service, and I’m grateful for it. Similarly, I’m all for the company making money. Heck, I’m even fine (albeit not thrilled) with their data mining and advertising techniques. For me, though, Facebook is all about the content; and if they can’t get the click bait out of there, my visits will become less frequent. Eventually, I’ll probably just avoid the service altogether, if this continues.

My hunch is that I’m not the only one who feels this way. You probably skim your News Feed and also ask questions like, “Wasn’t this once better?” and, “Why are my friends posting this junk?” My bet is that Facebook knows this sentiment exists. In fact, I’ve heard that Facebook has penalized Upworthy for how it games the News Feed; and, for that matter, I do find fewer Upworthy posts there than before. What’s surprising to me, though, is that Facebook hasn’t yet curbed all the other click bait that has surfaced through their network.

Although the notion seems improbable, I wonder if Facebook is simply unable to deal with this infestation. Is the public’s appetite for this kind of nonsense so great—and its creators so insidious—that it simply can’t be stopped? If so, perhaps we’ll look back in years to come, and reflect on how Google’s armies were unable to kill Facebook, but Upworthy (and its brethren) did, without even intending to.

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